Going home with the Morrises was like taking a guided tour of their lives on a sightseeing bus. They drove a moderately priced sedan chosen, Karl said, for its gas efficiency and for its high rating in Consumer Reports.
"Karl makes the decisions about everything we buy," Thelma explained with a light laugh that punctuated most of what she said. "He says an informed consumer is a protected consumer. You can't believe in advertisements. Advertisements, especially commercials, are just full of a lot of misinformation, right, Karl?"
"Yes, dear," Karl agreed.
I sat in the rear, and Thelma remained turned on an angle so she could talk to me all the way to their home -- my new home -- in Wappingers Falls, New York.
"Karl and I were childhood sweethearts. Did I tell you that?"
She continued before I could tell her she had.
"We started to go together in the tenth grade, and when Karl went to college, I remained faithful to him, and he remained faithful to me. After he graduated and was appointed to his position at IBM, we planned our wedding. Karl helped my parents make all the arrangements, right down to the best place to go for flowers, right, Karl?"
"That's true," he said, nodding. He didn't take his eyes off the road.
"Ordinarily, Karl doesn't like to have long conversations in the car when he's driving," Thelma explained, gazing at him and smiling. "He says people forget how driving a car is something that requires their full attention."
"Especially nowadays," Karl elaborated, "with so many more cars on the road, so many more teenage drivers and older drivers. Those two age groups account for more than sixty percent of all accidents."
"Karl has all sorts of statistics like that floating around his mind," Thelma said proudly. "Just last week, I was thinking about replacing our gas stove with a new electric range, and Karl converted BTUs...is that it, Karl? BTUs?"
"BTUs into pennies of cost and showed me how the gas stove was more efficient. Isn't it wonderful to have a husband like Karl who can keep you from making the wrong decisions?"
I smiled and gazed out the windows. The orphanage wasn't much more than fifty or so miles from where my new parents lived, but I had never traveled this far north. Other than some school field trips, I hadn't been to many places at all. Just leaving the orphanage and going twenty miles by car was an adventure.
It was late summer, and the cooler autumn winds had already begun to descend from the north. Leaves were turning rust and orange, and when I could see far into the distance and look over the heavily wooded mountains, I thought the ripple of colors was breathtakingly beautiful. This was a bright, sunny day, too. The sky was a deep, rich blue, and the clouds that flowed across it in a stream of wind stretched themselves until they became as thin as gauze. Way off to the south, an airplane turned into a silver dot and then disappeared into the clouds.
I was happy and full of hope. I would have a home, a place to call my own, and someone else to care about besides myself, as well as, I hoped, someone to care about me. How simple that was and how taken for granted by most people, but how wonderful and new and precious it was for orphans like myself.
"Karl is the oldest of three brothers and the only one married. His middle brother, Stuart, is a salesman for an air-conditioner manufacturer in Albany, and his younger rother, Gary, has graduated from a culinary institute in Poughkeepsie, where Karl's father lives. Gary was hired to cook on a cruise ship, so we don't hear from him or see him much at all.
"Karl and his brothers are not far apart in age, but they're not all that close. No one is in Karl's family, right, Karl?"
Karl nearly turned to look at her. His head started to move and then stopped when an automobile about fifty yards in front of us emerged from a driveway and he had to slow down.
"If they didn't speak to each other on the phone occasionally, they wouldn't know who still existed in the family and who didn't. Karl's father is still alive, but his mother passed away, what, two years ago, Karl?"
"A year and eleven months tomorrow," Karl said mechanically.
"A year and eleven months," she repeated like a translator.
So I have two uncles and a grandfather on Karl's side, I thought. Before I could ask about her side, she volunteered the information.
"I don't have any brothers or sisters," Thelma said. "My mother wasn't supposed to have any children. She had breast cancer when she was only seventeen, and the doctors advised her not to have children. Then, late in life, when she was in her early thirties, she became pregnant with me. My father was forty-one at the time. Now my mother is fifty-eight and my father is sixty-nine.
"I bet you're wondering why we don't have any children of our own. Before you, I mean," she added quickly.
"It's none of my business," I said.
"Oh, sure it is. Everything that's our business is your business now. We're going to be a family, so we have to share and be honest with each other, right, Karl?"
"Absolutely," he said, signaling to change lanes and pass the car ahead of us.
"Karl's sperm count is too low," she said with a smile, as if she were delighted about it.
"I don't know if we should talk about that, Thelma." The back of Karl's neck turned pink with embarrassment.
"Oh, of course we can. She's old enough and probably knows everything there is to know. Kids today are very advanced. How can they not help it, with all that's on television? Do you watch television much, Crystal?"
"No," I answered.
"Oh," she said, the excitement fading in her face for the first time since we had met. Her eyes looked like tiny flashlights with weakened batteries. Then she thought of something and smiled again. "Well, that's probably because you didn't have much opportunity in a home with so many other children. Anyway, we did try to have children. As soon as Karl determined it was financially sensible for us, we tried, right, Karl?"
"Nothing happened no matter how we planned it. I used a thermometer to take my temperature, plotted the days on my calendar, even planned some romantic evenings," she said, blushing. She shrugged. "Nothing happened. We just thought we were missing," she continued. "Take better aim, I used to tell him, didn't I, Karl?"
"Thelma, you're embarrassing me," he said.
"Oh, fiddledy-doo. We're a family. We can't be embarrassed," she emphasized.
The simplicity and honesty with which she talked about the most intimate details of her life fascinated me.
"Anyway," she continued, turning back to me, "Karl read up on it and learned that he should keep his scrotum cool. He avoided wearing anything tight, refrained from taking hot baths, and tried to keep himself cool, especially before we were going to make a baby. We even waited longer between times because periods of sexual restraint usually increase the volume and potency of sperm, right, Karl?"
"You don't have to get into the nitty-gritty details, Thelma."
"Oh, sure I do. I want Crystal to understand. I was reading a magazine the other day, Modern Parent or something like that, and the article said mothers and daughters especially should be honest and open about everything so they can build trust.
"Where was I?" she asked. "Oh, volume and potency of sperm. So, when that didn't work, we went to a doctor. You know that the average male produces anywhere from 120 million to 600 million sperm in a single ejaculation?"
"You have trouble with so many other facts and statistics, Thelma. How come you don't forget that one?" Karl asked gently.
"I don't know. It's not easy to forget, I guess," she said, shrugging. "Anyway, we found out that Karl was way below that and it didn't matter what he did. We still tried and tried, of course, and then we finally decided to adopt. Actually, I got the idea from Throbs of the Heart by Torch Summers, and then I discussed it with Karl and he agreed it would be a good idea.
"However, taking care of a baby is not an easy job. You have to wake up at night, and then you're too tired to do anything the next day, even watch television. So, that's how come we went looking for an older child and found you," she concluded.
"Our baby-making problem is not that unusual," Karl interjected during the first quiet moment. "Infertility used to be thought mainly a woman's problem, but the problem lies with the man in thirty-five percent of the cases."
"Karl feels sorry, but I don't blame him," Thelma said in a voice a little above a whisper.
"It's like what happens in Love's Second Chance by Amanda Fairchild. Did you ever read that one? I know you read a lot."
"No," I said. "I've never heard of it."
"Oh. Well, I think it was number one on the romance chart for four months last year. Anyway, April's lover has Karl's problem, only he doesn't know it until after April gets pregnant, obviously with someone else's child. It's so sad at the end when April dies in childbirth."
Thelma's eyes actually teared over. Then she jumped in her seat and smiled.
"Let's not think of sad things today. Today's a big day for all of us. We're going to a restaurant for dinner tonight, right, Karl?"
"Yes. I thought we'd go to the Sea Shell. Do you like seafood, Crystal?" he asked.
"I haven't eaten much of it, but yes," I said.
"Ordinarily, we don't go out to eat. It's not practical," Thelma said. "But Karl believes the Sea Shell gives you the best value for your dollar."
"Lobster and shrimp are expensive in restaurants especially, but they give you a good combination plate and plenty of salad and bread. I like their combination dinners. Good value," he pointed out. "You'll like their choice of desserts, too. I bet you like chocolate cake."
"It's my favorite," I admitted. All this talk of food was making my stomach growl.
"We have so much to learn about each other," Thelma said. "I want to know all your favorite things, like your favorite colors, favorite movie stars, favorite everything. I hope we have a lot of the same favorites, but even if we don't, it won't matter," she assured me, nodding so firmly it looked as if she was assuring herself just as much.
A little more than an hour later, we drove up a residential street and pulled into the driveway of a small ranch-style house with light gray aluminum siding, black aluminum window shutters, a sidewalk between two patches of lawn, hedges along the sidewalk and in front of the house, and a red maple tree off to the left. A large, plain aluminum mailbox in front was labeled MORRIS and had the address printed under it.
"Home sweet home," Thelma said as the garage door went up.
We pulled into the garage, a garage that looked neater than some of the rooms in the orphanage. It had shelves on the rear wall, and everything on them was labeled and organized. The floor of the garage even had a carpet over it.
Karl helped with my luggage and my box of books. I followed them through a door that led right into the kitchen.
"Karl designed our house," Thelma explained. "He thought it was practical to come directly from the garage into the kitchen, so we could get our groceries easily out of the car and into their proper cabinets."
It was a small but very neat and clean-looking kitchen. There was a breakfast nook on the right with a bay window that looked out on a fenced-in backyard. There wasn't much more lawn in the rear of the house than there was in the front.
Above the table was a cork board with notes pinned to it and a calendar with dates circled. The front of the refrigerator had a magnetic board with a list of foods that had to be replaced.
"Right this way," Karl said.
We left the kitchen and walked through a small corridor that led first to the living room and front door. There was a short entryway with a closet for coats just inside it. There was a den off the entryway that had walls of bookcases, sofas, and chairs, all facing the large television set. Just past that was the dining room. The furniture was all colonial.
My room wasn't much larger than my room at the orphanage, but it had bright, flowery wallpaper, filmy white cotton curtains, a desk with a large cupboard above it, and a twin-size bed with pink and white pillows and comforter. There was a closet on the left and a smaller one on the right.
"You can use this smaller closet for storing things other than clothes," Karl explained.
I paused at the desk and opened the cupboard to see a computer all set up inside.
"Surprise!" Thelma cried, clapping. "We got that just for you only two days ago. Karl priced them and found the best deal."
"It's very updated," Karl said. "I have you connected to the Internet also, so you can get your research done right in your room when you start school in a few weeks."
"Thank you," I said, overwhelmed. No one had ever bought me anything expensive. For a moment, it took my breath away, and I just ran the tips of my fingers over the keys to check that it was real.
"Now, don't you get like some of those other children we hear about," Thelma warned, "and spend all your time alone staring at the computer screen. We want to be a family and spend time together at dinner and watching television."
"Me, too," I said, nodding. I was really too excited to listen to anything she said. "Thank you."
"It's our pleasure," Karl said.
"I'll help you unpack your clothes, and we'll see what new things you'll need right away. We'll make a list, and Karl will tell us where it's best to go, right, Karl?"
"Absolutely," he said.
"Oh, dear. Oh, dear, no!" Thelma said, suddenly putting her hand to her heart.
Mine skipped a beat. Had I done something wrong already?
"What's the matter?" Karl asked her.
"Look at the time," she said, nodding at the small clock on my computer desk. "It's a little past three. I'm missing Hearts and Flowers, and today Ariel learns if Todd is the father of her child. Do you watch that one?" she asked me. I looked at Karl for help. I had no idea what she was talking about.
"She means her soap opera. How can she follow that one, Thelma? She would probably be coming home from school or still be in school when that one is on."
"Oh, I forgot that. Well, you know what I do when I have to miss a show. I videotape it. Only, with all the excitement, I forgot to set up the videotape machine. Do you mind waiting a little, dear? I'll help you unpack as soon as the show's over."
"That's all right," I said, putting my first suitcase on the bed and snapping it open. "There isn't much for me to do."
"No, no, no, Crystal, sweetheart." She reached for my hand. "You come with me. We'll watch the show together," she said, "and then we'll take care of your room."
I glanced at Karl, hoping he would rescue me as Thelma pulled me toward the door.
"Thelma, remember we have to get ready precisely at five to go to the restaurant," he said.
"Okay, Karl," she said. She was really tugging me. I practically flew out of the room.
"Welcome to our happy home," Karl called after me.
Copyright © 1998 by The Virginia C. Andrews Trust and The Vanda Publishing